When a character in Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer-winning play ‘August: Osage County‘ laments, “I’ve got the Plains,” she’s talking about the blues. The line is funny enough, but it’s not the sort of thing you’d ever hear in the real Osage County, a friendly if hard-to-reach swath of northeast Oklahoma. The county, which doubles as the Osage tribe’s reservation, is a wooded prairie that rolls merrily along – much like Bob Wills’s “Osage Hills,” the western swing song the area inspired before becoming the setting for a Broadway talkathon. And Bartlesville, just outside the county’s eastern border, but central to its day-to-day life, is as cheery and open as ever.
Fifty miles west of Route 66, Bartlesville has been an oil town since its infancy, when Frank Phillips was establishing Phillips 66 here around the turn of the century. Oil money meant spending money, and it birthed a big-city sensibility that one might not expect in this corner of Oklahoma. Bartlesville’s Mozart festival turns 30 next June, and the town attracts architecture buffs thanks to the works of futurist Bruce Goff and to that copper-covered “country tower” looming over the downtown office buildings.
The Price Tower was a dream come true for Bartlesville’s happiest visitor, Frank Lloyd Wright. After trying for 40 years to drum up interest in a skyscraper constructed around his pinwheel geometrical designs – 19 floors qualifies as a skyscraper in this part of the country – an Oklahoma businessman finally bit. The structure was completed in 1956, three years before Wright’s death. The tower is now half museum and half inn. With its superbly restored rooms and offices bursting with midcentury optimism, the tower – a night in it anyway – justifies a detour on its own.
With a few more days, you’ll find plenty to do close to town. A 20-minute drive southwest, past signs that mark “Osage Nation,” the summer home of Frank Phillips is one of the state’s most beloved attractions. Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve (named for having woods, lakes, and rocks) features an interesting collection of Native American artifacts and Western art. It’s reached on a two-mile drive past the herds of bison and elk Phillips installed on his land shortly after his lodge opened in 1925.
Meat eaters will want to take Highway 99 south to Hominy, a wee historic town with a few shops on its main street and a restaurant made from a stock trailer called Wild Country Meats. It’s actually quite the mod scene (but for the boots and T-shirts poking fun at PETA), with big, fresh cuts of barbecue and steak served to a crowd that comes in from Tulsa.
Back north of Pawhuska, the 39,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve shows visitors what the area from Texas into Canada once looked like – before the barbed wire, the railroads, and the farms. There’s a restored ranch and bison to see in the meadows, but the best way to appreciate what “mid America” once was – and to “beat the Plains,” or prairies, or flats – is along the two hiking paths.
As a local might say, “Don’t knock ’em ’til you’ve walked ’em.”
More information: Bartlesville is a 50-minute drive from Tulsa on Rt. 75. Rooms at the Inn at Price Tower run from $175 a night.